Unfair to blame visitors, families for prisons’ woes

An inmate gestures through the bars of his prison cell. (Photo: Sakhorn, Shutterstock)

In a recent article attempting to justify the new and Draconian measures that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is instituting under the ‘leadership’ of Jeffrey Beard, Secretary Beard makes the case for interdicting drugs before they enter prison walls.  He cites the dangers of drug debts, leading to gang activity, violence and increased addiction for those who are released after serving their sentence.

All true.  To counter act this menace CDCR has announced, on an ‘emergency’ basis, the introduction of drug sniffing dogs and ion scanners to be used on prisoners and visitors to detect drugs and that other scourge of society, cell phones.

No one in their right mind would mount a case for drugs inside prisons, nor for smuggling any contraband, including cell phones.  But Beard lays the onus for this activity squarely on the visitors, friends and family of inmates in the prisons.  He makes the claim that ‘every weekend’ visitors are arrested for attempting to smuggle in drugs.  Also true.  And he claims so far this year some 270+ visitors have been arrested.

Maybe.  But considering that in any one weekend1,200 to 1,500 people visit at one prison, CSP-Solano, alone, and even at the modest rate of maybe 800 per prison per weekend, given the number of prisons in California (36 at last count) and at 52 weekends per year…well, you do the math.  Even if another 270 were arrested by the end of this year, that’s still a small percentage compared to the numbers of visitors intent on nothing more than seeing their loved one who is in prison.

Beard also makes much of learned studies linking the use of drugs and violence in prisons (not surprising (the same link exists in the free world, and cites the number of prisoner deaths so far this year from drug overdoses—but somehow he neglects to mention the number of deaths of those mentally ill prisoners, many supposed to be on suicide watch, which could have been prevented had custody staff been doing their jobs.  Not to mention the deaths due to medical neglect and over-use of pepper spray, a practice a US court found not only unconstitutional, but inhumane.

But in all the justification for the new measures going in under Beard’s watch the Secretary never mentions the well known, privately acknowledged fact that while visitor may bring in small amounts of drugs, the importation of trafficable amounts of drugs comes in not through visitors, but through staff at the prisons, including custody staff.  And nearly all cell phone trafficking is done by staff, often to the tune of more than $100,000 per year in reportable cash.

The problem is so bad, in fact, that the state is playing the confession of one former custody offer, recorded from his prison cell, as a warning to the other 9,000+ prison guards.  The media has been rife in recent years with reports of officers, from sheriff’s deputies to guards in state and federal prisons, being caught with contraband, often in sting operations such as the one that a couple of years ago netted a prison guard who was paid $1,500 to smuggle a cell phone inside to an undercover FBI agent posing as a prisoner.  In the first 6 months of 2013 alone 54 guards were found to have smuggled cell phones into prisons, according to California’s own Inspector General.

Visitors to prisons already go through a rigorous screening process, including restrictions on what clothing can be worn, where the sit in visiting and they must all clear a metal detector.  Visits are conducted under the eagle-eyes of prison staff, who can and do make even the smallest trespass (don’t put your arm around your wife!) an offense capable of terminating visiting privileges and resulting in disciplinary action for the inmates.

But–guards, prison staff and volunteers come and go pretty much at will.  Guards, in particular, often bring large ice-chest sized coolers with their lunches inside the wire, and from personal experience, if those coolers are checked, it is cursory in nature.  And often, no check is made at all.  Metal detectors are by-passed, guards and familiar faces are waved through with a high-five salute.

The newest proposed regulations call for the use of drug dogs in visiting, which will ‘alert’ on any sniff of drugs.  Of course, if those drugs were consumed legally by the visitor, say prescription pain medication, too bad.  The visitors’ only recourse is to submit to an unclothed body search, which is even less pleasant than it sounds.

And if the dogs alert on a staff member?  Oh, they will receive a pat down and if nothing is found, such as, say a 5 pound bag of weed hidden in their pant leg, they can go ahead and enter. With whatever they’re carrying.

So how about a little true transparency and truth from the Secretary of Corrections?  Clean up your own house first, Jeff, and then come after the nickel and dime stuff brought in by visitors.  And in the meantime, if you’re going to introduce Gestapo tactics in trying to stop contraband coming into prisons, at least be honest and even handed enough to apply the same standards to visitors and staff.

Anyone caught bringing contraband into prisons should face stiff penalties—and if they happen to be sworn custody staff, sworn to uphold the law and protect the citizenry of the state, maybe, just maybe, the price should be even higher.

Ed’s Note: Vanessa Nelson is the executive director of the Life Support Alliance, which advocates for the lawful rights of prisoners sentenced to life.


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